Table Talk: Joanne Kates reviews Hoof Raw Bar
By Joanne Kates
Chef Jonathan Pong serves up innovative seafood at Hoof Raw Bar (Image: Cheol Joon Baek)
Since Grant van Gameren hoofed it from The Hoof last year, it’s not been clear whether (now sole) owner Jen Agg has the creative vision to sustain and renew the brand. A mixologist by trade, she was never going to have it easy with the departure of her wunderkind chef/partner. The Black Hoof itself is not, in my view, as fabulous as it was under Grant.
But Agg’s new project, the Hoof Raw Bar (next door to The Hoof) proves the lady can cut the mustard. How daring to diverge entirely from meat and do an all-seafood menu! Of course it’s still very Hoof — no reservations, and the menu follows The Hoof formula: cured, smoked and raw are the main themes, transmuted here to seafood.
How clever to morph the famous charcuterie board to seafood, following The Hoof formula of tastes going from mild to intense as you get closer to the handle of the board. Olive cured branzino is pale and delicate, the light fish barely flavoured with olive.
Miso black cod gives the fish, rarely served raw, a slightly pungent sweetness. Gravlax tuna, a play on gravlax salmon, profits less well from its salt and sugar cure. Tuna, being so much less fatty than salmon, toughens a bit, though the flavour is grand. And over by the handle is the most overt nod to Hoof tradition — chorizo-cured scallop, the spicy strong outside a great foil to raw wet scallop on the inside. The sweetness of house-pickled baby onions goes with the cured fish like gin goes with tonic.
Chef Jonathan Pong, a Hoof alum, riffs on shrimp cocktail with smoked shrimp cocktail, almost raw super-sweet shrimps barely smoked, served, tongue in cheek, in a retro shrimp cocktail goblet with superb cocktail sauce zinged with crunchy mustard seeds. He makes chawan mushi (savoury Japanese egg custard) his own by serving it cold, topped with smoked salmon roe, kale chips and mushrooms for a delicate summery invention. His sole misstep is clam chowder with baby gnocchi replacing the traditional potato cubes. Cute, and we love the barely cooked clams and the leek “hay” on top, but the gnocchi have gone gluey.
Seafood aficionados are always wanting it cooked less … and less … and less. To satisfy our cravings for sashimi, chef always offers some raw. He tops raw scallops with tiny green apple cubes, crisp salty potato fragments and curried apple cider reduction. Fantastic!
Shrimp on toast is baked perfect: soft shrimp with tiny kohlrabi cubes and coriander leaves woven through with a ribbon of sous vide egg yolk dotted with black sesame seeds. Baked oysters are amazing, not really cooked but perhaps heated simply to firm them slightly, then topped with cured foie gras and a big pile of raw shallots crisped with panko crumbs. Briny salty and sweet, all balanced on a knife edge: quite the flavour feat.
The room itself is more charming than The Hoof (not saying that much), thanks to a high Aspenite ceiling set off by white brick walls, blonde wood tables and a huge old mirror. All is light and bright — just like the food, which is indeed evanescent.
Hoof Raw Bar, 928 Dundas Street West, $70 Dinner for two
Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cordon Bleu de Cuisine in Paris. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Maclean’s and Chatelaine, and she was the Globe and Mail’s restaurant critic for 38 years.